What is Greenwashing and How to Tell Which Companies are Truly Environmentally Responsible
July 9, 2021
Reading time: 7 minutes
“Greenwashing” is a response to the rising demand for sustainable products. According to Allied Market Research, the sustainability market for green technology was valued at $8.79 billion in 2019. By 2027, it is projected to reach $48.36 billion globally. That’s ample incentive for some unscrupulous business practices to grab a piece of that market.
But what is greenwashing, exactly? Greenwashing is exaggerating the green features of a product, service, or even an entire business operation. The goal is to attract consumers who care about the environment and who prefer to buy from green, eco-friendly companies.
Greenwashing is any behavior that overstates or obscures real environmental impact, including energy efficiency or the amount of recycled materials in a product. Greenwashing can also include a company’s vague or misleading marketing.
The FTC doesn’t actually provide a greenwashing definition for consumers or businesses. The task is complex, with so many ongoing changes to the technologies we use and terms that sellers use when advertising. Until terms and definitions are made more consistent, a lot of the obligation falls on individual businesses to be transparent and on the consumers doing their research.
This is why the FTC heavily emphasizes the importance of clarity. “What companies think their green claims mean and what consumers really understand are two different things,” the FTC writes. Businesses need to put themselves in the consumer’s shoes to understand how those claims look in certain contexts to avoid potential misunderstandings.
What is corporate environmentalism?
Corporate environmentalism covers institutional efforts to reduce the environmental impact of operations, from manufacturing and supply chains to product design and distribution. It is one of the most effective ways to collectively fight climate change.
That’s exactly why corporate environmentalism is so effective. It’s a comprehensive approach at every level of an organization. This means it also has a bigger potential to make an impact. The more complex a business, the bigger the potential net impact of good environmental policy. But it’s important not to claim more than the company is actually doing.
Common greenwashing practices
The exact form of greenwashing depends on the product, business, and nature of the claim. The most common bad practices are associated with deceptive advertising and marketing. Here are some frequent themes and scenarios.
1. Lack of supporting evidence
Greenwashing companies often try to obscure data through omission by leaving key information out of advertising or making claims they can’t back up with data. If a product has numerous environmental claims on its packaging without any clear explanations, those claims may be fabricated. You may also notice a lack of supporting links or even stock imagery used where you should see a real photo.
2. Product claims appear exaggerated or irrelevant
This takes a variety of forms, like sustainability claims that highlight only one feature or include irrelevant information. Advertisers may tout responsibility on ethical and societal issues, but they’ll avoid questions about raw materials and supply chains. They may also highlight recycled content, in plastic bottles for example, without indicating the percentage used in the process.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as a misleading advertisement. Others, like the Volkswagen emissions scandal, are cases of deliberate manipulation.
3. Suspicious certifications or third-party approvals
Depending on where you shop and what you buy, you may also see suspicious certifications or obscure third-party recognitions for environmental friendliness. Brands like ENERGY STAR® and EPEAT® are well-known authorities on energy efficiency, but few others have such name recognition. If you don’t recognize who is certifying a product, do your research on their history.
4. Touts recyclability without providing access or alternatives
Many of us know from experience that products marked recyclable aren’t always accepted by the local recycling service. While those markings can tell you how and where to recycle a product, they can also be confusing and lead to improperly discarded waste.
Look for easy access to this information. When it comes to HP products, you can visit the recyclability tab of the Sustainability Buyer’s Guide. You’ll find tips for recycling empty ink and toner cartridges and old hardware, as well as information for enrolling your business in a custom recycling program.
FTC Green Guides guidance on avoiding greenwashing
The FTC’s Green Guides summary includes information on how companies can avoid greenwashing and best manage their business practices. Here are some of the common words and phrases marketers need to fully understand before using them:
General Environmental Benefit Claims: Broad claims are difficult to back up, so they’re often best to avoid in advertising. In other words, advertising should be specific.
Carbon Offsets: Should not be touted when required by law or when an offset is for a deferred reduction.
Certifications and Seals of Approval: Having an endorsement isn’t enough to avoid providing data.
Compostable: Claims should be specific about how consumers can safely compost.
Degradable: Must be substantiated unless the product completely degrades within one year.
Free of: It’s deceptive to claim a product is free of anything it never contained, or to gloss over too many trace elements.
Non-Toxic: Requires scientific backing.
Ozone-Safe and Ozone-Friendly: Fundamentally deceptive.
Recyclable: The majority of consumers must have easy access to recycling options to justify the claim.
Recycled Content: Should include specific information about materials and only factor in “materials that have been recovered or diverted from the waste stream during the manufacturing process or after consumer use.”
Refillable: Must provide a working option.
Made with Renewable Energy: Claims should be backed by renewable energy certificates.
Made with Renewable Materials: The material should be identified and explained.
Source Reduction: Advertising should clearly compare to previous product generations when highlighting improvements.
HP’s comprehensive sustainability strategy
Now that we know the ways businesses try to “greenwash” their practices, how can you identify environmentally responsible companies? What is a green company, for example, and what are true green initiatives versus greenwashing ideas?
HP stands out as an example of how proper corporate environmentalism can work in practice. The company is open about the challenges and limitations, acknowledging that impact is felt unevenly and solutions are often imperfect.
“COVID-19 and climate change both disproportionately impact communities of color and lower-income households around the world. These crises have laid bare the need to address the systemic racism and deep inequalities – from health and education to economic opportunity and the environment – that have been a stain on society for far too long.”
Sustainability has a social dimension that’s often woven into environmental concerns, which underscores the need for clarity and consistency. While HP’s approach covers multiple areas, education is a major focus of numerous initiatives. As of this publish, many of those efforts are focused on bolstering access for students and resources for teachers in light of the pandemic.
Climate action goals for the future
In April 2021, HP unveiled an updated set of climate goals to guide development over the next three decades. Here are the core goals from the announcement:
Achieve net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across HP value chain by 2040, beginning with Supplies business achieving carbon neutrality by 2030
Reduce HP value chain GHG emissions 50% by 2030
Reach carbon neutrality and zero waste in HP operations by 2025
Reach 75% circularity for products and packaging by 2030
Maintain zero deforestation for HP paper and paper-based packaging
Counteract deforestation for non-HP paper used in our products and print services by 2030
Since eco-friendly manufacturers have to account for a lot, even just the full list of 2025 goals is extensive. Publishing clear goals and updating them each year to reflect new developments is part of how HP addresses the negative impact of greenwashing.
In 2020, HP was the only technology company in the world to receive an AAAA-rating from the CDP for sustainability practices.
The HP Sustainability Buyer's Guide allows consumers and businesses to shop from a slate of particularly environmentally-friendly products. It’s organized into six sections: laptops, desktops, printers, ink and toner, monitors and accessories, and recycling.
Unfortunately, greenwashing may be around forever. Avoiding it comes down to making informed purchases as a consumer and avoiding the practice as a business owner. Research any claim that seems suspicious or lacks adequate citations from marketing teams. If you can’t find substantiating data, you may need to look elsewhere or find the right words to describe a new product.
About the Author: Dwight Pavlovic is a contributing writer for HP Tech@Work. Dwight is a music and technology writer based out of West Virginia.
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